Of Miracles & Snake Oil



As I was listening to an interview of panelists and presenters from the last Unbelievable conference in the United States[1], I was struck by something AJ Roberts[2] said in a discussion about miracles. She opined that people do not believe in miracles in the West because of the western emphasis on rationality over experience.

When she said that, I questioned in my mind whether she was right. Not that I haven’t heard that before. I have even thought that before myself. But a thought occurred to me this time as she made this assertion in the context of a broader discussion about miracles by the thoughtful panelists.

We do live in a society in which education is valued and science and rationality is emphasized at the academic level. The United States of America was built on a foundation of free public education. This is why schoolhouses were built all across the frontier, and colleges followed as the frontier expanded.

As an aside, I note that most of colleges in the US that were established before the 20th century were religiously inspired and motivated. From the Ivy League schools and across the country, most colleges and universities in the US have religious roots, but that is a subject for another day.

As I think about that fact, I am reminded of another strain to the legacy of this country, a more popular influence. That is the strain of Americanism that gave rise to the snake oil salesman[3], the huckster, people searching for the legendary fountain of youth, circus sideshows and the market for elixirs that promise happiness, long life and improvement to the digestive system.

Interestingly, our American proclivity toward quackery may have grown out of a combination of pluralism and capitalism. Pluralism brought people from all parts of the world to the shores of the New World with Old World remedies that cowboy capitalist exploited with claims of false cures. Americans have been so taken by such false claims that regulatory industries have been spawned by our gullibility, yet the “snake oil claims” live on.

I think about all the people I have known and the silly, hairbrained things they have put their faith in. There is no end to the pyramid schemes that promise health and riches. We, in the west, have even developed variations of New Age, religious elixirs that promise to deliver all of the benefits of the old snake oils in shiny, metaphysical packages that boasts none of the sticky side effects of traditional Christianity, like the need to deal with personal sin and accountability to a creator God.

It occurs to me that, maybe, the apparent dearth of miracles in the US isn’t that we have an exalted idea of rationality. Maybe God doesn’t grant us many miracles as we will believe almost anything. What’s another miracle claim among many? We might be just a little bit too inclined to believe them and to focus too much on them.

When Jesus sent out 72 of his followers ahead of him to go town to town proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God and healing the sick, they came back excited that “even the demons are subject to us in your name!” But Jesus admonished them: “[D]o not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”[4] Jesus also warned that many people would do miracles in His name that are not His people.[5]

I have often wondered why missionaries report so many miracles that God does in other countries, why the average American seems to have never experienced or seen a miracle. Perhaps, it’s because we are too predisposed to believe anything, not that we are disposed not to believe. We have learned well the willing suspension of disbelief that we employ in our favorite forms of entertainment, and we have turned that practice into driving desire for our lives. (Thank about the Disney themes of love at first sight and living happily ever after.)

At the pedestrian level, outside the halls of academia, we have a history of being taken by extraordinary claims as long as they are smartly and provocatively packaged. Perhaps it isn’t that we are so grounded by rationality, but that we are willing to believe almost anything that comes down the road, as long as it promises something that we want and can access on our own without the bother of accountability to a God who can’t be manipulated.

We even have our own brand of Christianity in the US that caters to our preferences – the word of faith movement. Name it and claim it! Believe it and seize it! Deposit your prayers with holy confidence into the divine slot machine and out will come your healing, cash, whatever you want. All you have to do is believe.

I used to think often that Christians in the west don’t observe or experience miracles because we are more rationally minded, but I am not so sure of that as I write this. Maybe we are too easily fooled.

The point of miracles done by Jesus was a combination of compassion[6], evidence that his words were authoritative and true[7] and to boost the faith of those who believed[8]. But those who were healed often missed the ultimate point, which was the proclamation of the kingdom of God, repentance and forgiveness of sin and the call to enter into relationship with God the Father as His children.

We see an example of the tendency of people to miss the most important point in the cleansing of the ten lepers. Only one of the ten came back to Jesus to thank Him, and a foreigner at that![9] The implication is that only one really “got it”. They all experienced the miracle of their healing, but only one returned to establish a relationship with Jesus.

It’s not as if there are no miracle claims in the US. There are plenty, but many miracle claims that reach a level of public knowledge come out of the faith movement and are highly questioned (as they should be). They are like Christian clickbait that deserves skepticism as all clickbait does (or should). They very publicity of the miracle claims, the kind of publicity that smells like hype, should give pause.

Jesus often downplayed the miracles he did. He often instructed people not to go around talking about the miracles they experienced. Perhaps, this is because we have a misguided tendency to focus too much on the miraculous to the point of distraction from more important things.

As I think about how some of the smartest people I know have their pet snake oil, and the more I think about the crazy claims that come out of academia today, I wonder if our problem is not that we are too rational for God to do miracles among us. The more I think about the quirky American brand of Christianity we call the faith movement, I wonder if are not really too inclined to believe only what we want to believe. Perhaps, our western environment is not good soil for God to do regular miracles in our midst, but not for the reasons we are inclined to believe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] See Unbelievable? USA Conference 2019: Ruth Jackson, John Lennox, Mary Jo Sharp, AJ Roberts, Brian Brodersen and Bobby Conway on the Unbelievable? podcast Saturday December, 28 2019.

[2] AJ (Anjeanette) Roberts is a molecular biologist with a BS in chemistry (graduating with honors) from the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences at the University of Tulsa, a PhD in molecular and cell biology from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in Christian apologetics from Biola University. She did postdoctoral research in viral pathogenesis and “proof-of-concept” vaccine studies at Yale University and then spent two years in Samara, Russia, in Christian mission work and public health lecturing. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she co-led a SARS research team, served as an assistant professor of graduate education for the University of Virginia’s microbiology faculty and directed the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program in Microbiology, Immunology, and Infectious Diseases. She was a visiting fellow with the Rivendell Institute at Yale. She has coauthored over 40 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, resented at numerous national and international scientific conferences and lectured at various institutions around the world. In 2005, she received the NIH Merit Award for her contribution to research in infectious diseases.

[3] See A History Of ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’, Lashmi Gandhi for NPR August 26, 2013. A snake oil salesman is a seller of a quack remedy or panacea. The story explains how a legitimate joint pain relief became exploited as a panacea of false cures.

[4] See Luke 10:1-12, 17-21

[5] See Matthew 7:21-23 (“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”)

[6] See Matthew 14:14

[7] See John 14:11

[8] See Luke 8:22-25

[9] See Luke 17:11-19

3 thoughts on “Of Miracles & Snake Oil

    1. Wow, Kevin not even an acknowledgement. I even rewrote the post twice as the ‘science and belief’ blog failed to put my post up and I felt that it was a victim to some automatic spam filter.

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